A few weeks ago we visited MGM for a Hollywood Party so now let’s give equal time to one of Metro’s rival studios – the fabulous Twentieth Century-Fox. The “hyphen” in the name acknowledges a merger between the then-recently formed Twentieth Century Pictures (1933) and the more venerable but ailing Fox studio. The occasion of this particular radio party is to launch the new film, ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND, but since all the film’s songs were written by Irving Berlin, the broadcast is called “A Tribute to Irving Berlin,” who not only appears on the show but sings too.
This all-star broadcast is kicked off by newspaper columnist Walter Winchell who turns over the proceedings to master of ceremonies Al Jolson. Among the legendary entertainers you’ll hear are Ethel Merman, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Connie Boswell, Paul Whiteman, and Tommy Dorsey. The show then switches gears when movie mogul Darryl Zanuck presents a radio preview of ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND with its stars Tyrone Power, Alice Faye and Ethel Merman. All of this was performed live to millions of listeners on the evening of August 3, 1938, so if you want to join the party just click below and within five seconds you’ll be transported back in time to spend a full hour in Old Hollywood:
The following are thumbnail sketches of some of the celebrities appearing on the broadcast. Irving Berlin and Al Jolson went a long way back. Both became famous by 1911: Al popularized Irving’s songs and Irving’s songs helped make Jolie a star. Here they are golfing in 1929:
Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson were friendly competitors both professionally and personally, on the stage, in movies, on radio and in vying to be the first to sing Berlin’s new songs. Listen to their ad-lib arguing while singing with Irving Berlin:
Irving takes the stars of ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND through their paces prior to filming: Alice Faye, Tyrone Power and Don Ameche, who grew a mustache for the film. All three were newly-minted stars with only a couple of hit films behind them. No doubt they are genuinely happy to have the composer onboard their new film:
Connee Boswell was part of the successful Boswell Sisters but when her two siblings decided to retire in 1936, she continued alone and became one the best female jazz vocalists of her era. Unknown to the public, Connee was wheelchair-bound, not unlike President Franklin Roosevelt. She originally spelled her first name as “Connie” but later changed it to “Connee” because it made signing autographs easier:
Bandleader Paul Whiteman was a big figure, literally and figuratively, in American music during much of the first half of the 20th century. He commissioned George Gershwin to write “Rhapsody in Blue” and Ferde Grofe to compose “Grand Canyon Suite,” championed jazz as a serious form of music when it was commonly dismissed as degenerate, and through his concerts, broadcasts and recordings introduced the public to Bing Crosby, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Red Nichols, Mildred Bailey, Bix Beiderbecke, Hoagy Carmichael, and many others:
Darryl Zanuck receives the very first Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award during the Academy Awards ceremony in March 1938. Silent screen star and producer Douglas Fairbanks Sr. is the presenter. This special “Oscar” is still given each year to honor outstanding film executives. The legendary Thalberg had died over a year earlier; Doug Fairbanks would die the following year and Hollywood would never be quite the same:
ALEXANDER’S RAGTIME BAND is readily available on dvd and is one of the most enjoyable musicals of the 1930s.
Bonus: Irving Berlin was inducted into the Friars Club in 1911 and, in lieu of the customary speech, he wrote and sang a very funny song just for the occasion. It was such a hit that Irving was persuaded to privately record the song on January 24, 1914. Here it is performed by the composer himself: